Michael Caine sits down for lunch at the St. Regis Hotel in midtown New York clutching a copy of the day's Daily News given to him by the hotel doorman, who's earmarked a photo of Caine and his "Youth" co-star Jane Fonda.
"You wonder why I stay here," he chuckles. "I always remember the sort of joke thing in the British paper where the journalist said to the duchess, 'What's the best restaurant in London?' And she said, 'Where you're known, dear.' And I apply that to a lot of what I do."
Caine, 82, is known just about everywhere. Some know him as the star of British classics like "Alfie," ''The Italian Job," and "Get Carter." Others know him as Batman's butler (and a regular of just about every Christopher Nolan movie). Some might even know him just by the ubiquitous impressions of his indelible cockney accent, like Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's dueling Michael Caines in "The Trip."
In Paolo Sorrentino's "Youth," which is now in theaters, Caine puts a capstone on a career that has traveled from working-class upstart to cinema institution. Like most things in life, he's enjoying it.
Working now and then, Caine lives relatively quietly, focused on his family; he and his wife, Shakira Baksh, are moving from their updated barn outside London, so their 25-minute drive to their grandchildren can be cut down to 5. But he's also soaking up the adulation for his aged classical composer in "Youth," which some think could land him his sixth Oscar nomination.
"I've been nominated (for best actor) four times and I have never won," he says, smiling. "I fly for 11 hours to clap another actor and then go home. It's a long way! So I'm not exactly clearing shelves. I've got two Oscars, anyway."
Sorrentino, the Italian director of the Oscar-winning "The Great Beauty," wanted Caine for his combination of authority and levity – a description that hits on Caine's unique blend of good cheer and gravitas. Caine first struck Sorrentino in Woody Allen's "Hannah and her Sisters": "When I saw that, I thought: I would like to be like Michael Caine in life."
Wouldn't we all. Though Caine doesn't share his character's melancholy or regret he's similarly reflective – a two-time memoirist and an eager, colorful storyteller. "They say I'm a raconteur but what are you going to do?" he said. "There are stories to tell."
"What am I going to do? Sit around and watch soaps on television all day? That's why I never retired. I retire mentally every time. I regard myself retired now. I don't have another script to do, so I'm retired. I always had this phrase that I said many times to reporters: You don't retire in movies. Movies retire you. (AP: Yet they're not.) That's the point. I retire and they say, "Oh, no you're not."
ON FIGHTING IN KOREA
"In Korea, I got into a situation where I knew I was going to die. There were four of us. You always worry that you may be a coward. The four of us found out two things that night. One, that none of us were cowards. And that our attitude to life was that we will make this as expensive as possible."
ON HIS BREAKTHROUGH
"'Alfie' was a stage play which I auditioned for and never got. I was the last choice of anybody. I shared a flat with Terence Stamp and he was offered 'Alfie.' I spent two days trying to talk him into doing it. Laurence Harvey, Anthony Newley were offered it. It was the first time I was nominated for an Oscar. But I had seen Paul Scofield in 'A Man for All Seasons,' so I didn't even bother to turn up."
ON COMING TO HOLLYWOOD
"The first party I went to in Hollywood, Shirley MacLaine gave to welcome me to Hollywood. The first people to walk in were Gloria Swanson and Frank Sinatra. I was dumbstruck. Then she took me to dinner at Danny Kaye's house. There were only two other people there. One was Cary Grant and the other one was Prince Philip. I'm sitting there. I've been in Hollywood for three weeks. I took Shirley home. She lived in the Valley. As we got near to her home, I said, 'Look! Your house is on fire.' She said, 'Michael, that's steam from the pool.'"
ON TURNING DOWN ALFRED HITCHCOCK
"I knew Hitchcock. We were from the same area, Londoners. When I first went to Hollywood for 'Gambit,' my bungalow at Universal was next to his. We became friends. Then when he offered me 'Frenzy,' he asked me to play a sadistic murderer of women and I wouldn't do it. And he never spoke to me again."
ON BATMAN AND HIS GRANDSON
"We have very much a father-and-son relationship. When he was about four, I was watching cartoons with him. And a commercial for 'Batman' came on, and he looked at me and he went, 'You know Batman?' I said, 'Yeah' and he said, 'Wow, that's fantastic.'"
ON IMPROVISING ON 'YOUTH'
"I had this habit of saying another funny line, which is just stupid. It's not going to be in the movie, but just to get a laugh. I'll do anything to get a laugh. But there was one where my daughter (Rachel Weisz) was sitting crying behind me and I couldn't see her. I just said, 'Stop crying.' And he left it in the movie. I like relaxation on a set, so I'm always going for a laugh. I can't act in a tense atmosphere."
ON PLAYING OLDER PARTS
"I had had great success in movies. I had done 61, 62. And I got a script and I sent it back to the producer with a note saying I didn't want to do it, the part was too small. And he sent it back with a note saying, 'I didn't want you to read the lover. I wanted you to read the father.' That's when, as I like to say, you stop getting the girl, but you get the part."
ON ONE SIMILARITY WITH HIS 'YOUTH' CHARACTER
"There's a scene at the doctor's where I go to see the results of my exam and he says to me: 'What's it like feeling old?' And what struck me is the line I said to him, which is: 'I don't understand how I got here.' Six years ago I was 35. How the hell have I gotten to be 82? A reporter once said to me, 'How do you feel about growing old?' And I said to him, 'Well, considering the alternative, fabulous.'"